The Sanctuary reflects God’s desire to dwell with us (Exodus 25:8; 29:45), and the best way to understand it is as Moses did. After Moses erected God’s design as instructed, it was honored with God’s marvelous Presence. God’s nearness manifested through the potent visitation of His Glory, which filled the newly erected Sanctuary (Exodus 40:24–38). God’s Presence was right there, dwelling among them, but the terrified Israelites shrank back because they dared not bear the grandeur of His Presence. They felt immobilized by fear and anxiety.
We often picture God’s Sanctuary as a place of judgment, but if we fear God, the Sanctuary will seem a scary place to go. We might be quick to assume that visiting the Sanctuary where God dwelt was dreadful and frightening, but what if we have this wrong? What if nearing God’s physical Presence is wonderfully rapturous, the happiest and most intimate of moments, a beauty of holiness surpassing all limits, a euphoric experience unlike anything we have experienced?
Such an experience would be transformative and would elicit a feeling of something much greater than ourselves. With an elevated heartrate, we would discern the wonder and amazement of God, which is so awesomely beautiful that experiencing it would require something from us. It’s clear that the Israelites knew that the Maker of all existence required a change in the fabric of their being. They felt the awesomeness of God’s Presence shearing away their faultiness, and it terrified them. They were not ready to receive a reality beyond their decaying condition, so they chose to remain mere spectators gazing from a safe distance, insisting that others go instead. From such an outlook, the Sanctuary seems a frightening place, sacrifices seem punishment for sin, and mediation requires pleading with a reluctant God whose wrath smites wayward people.
There’s a fascinating scene in the movie Moses in which God appears and an overjoyed Moses, played by actor Ben Kingsley, smiles while other people are terrified. This portrayal of the people’s fear had broader ramifications. Along with their anxiety came misunderstandings about the Sanctuary message and what it means to come into the Presence of God. These misunderstandings have also informed our understanding of Jesus’s sacrifice and priesthood. Whenever we view ourselves as objects of God’s condemnation, we create unnecessary tension. Rightly understood, the Sanctuary is marvelous because it teaches us that we can go to the place God is, provided we go the way He has asked us to.
Moses was unique in that he desired to approach God’s intimate Presence. Moses spoke to God “face to face” as His friend (Exodus 33:11, Numbers 12:6–8). I don’t think we can fully understand the Sanctuary until we get this point: Moses was not like everyone else (Deuteronomy 18:18, 19). God clearly distinguished him by granting him a higher level of access, which is the greatest compliment anyone could hope for (Deuteronomy 34:10). What could be more intimate than being God’s friend and knowing Him face to face? No one is better equipped to explain the meaning of the Sanctuary than Moses. At Sinai, he testified“I have been to the mountain, and I have seen the glory of the Lord” (Exodus. 24:12–18).
If we follow Moses up the mountain, we too will see God in ways that are inconceivably beautiful, though they barely scratch the surface of God’s magnificence. Moses’s desire to commune with God burned so greatly that he begged to experience more (Exodus 33:18). This is what the Sanctuary was supposed to be all about—allowing Israel to draw closer and receive a similar kind of experience with God.
Moses was given the message about God that Israel most needed to know: not to be afraid. Moses understood that there was no reason to fear God, though others never seemed to figure this out (Exodus 20:20). As we examine the relationships Moses had with the people and with God, we can’t help but see God trying to lead Israel closer to His ideal through Moses. It is against the backdrop of Israel’s terrifying experience that God promised the coming of one like Moses, who would bring His full and final revelation (Deuteronomy 18:15–19). Moses gave the people the advantage of knowing God better. In this way, the revelation of God’s character to Moses finds its clearest manifestation in the revelation of Jesus, who would carry the message to not fear God even further.
God’s surpassing revelation in Jesus does not take the shape of Israel’s paradigm but restores the Sanctuary message to its original Mosaic foundation. Today, we can best enter this experience not through the outlook of those who cowered at the foot of Sinai but through Jesus who came to us like Moses. Moses focused on and desired God’s unfathomable revelation of who He truly was, and Jesus later adopted the same reference points.
So, I invite you to see God as Moses invited the children of Israel to see Him. Standing before a Holy God brought the Israelites only fear and terror, but as the writer of Hebrews tells us, this revelation pointed to something greater in Jesus without negating the original meaning. Serving God in His awesome Presence is still the goal. Moses spent much time discussing with God the subject of the Sanctuary in ways that no one else has. Don’t view God’s Sanctuary as the average Israelite did; instead, I challenge you to take a deeper look through the unveiled eyes of Moses. God has clearly shown us His preference.
Moses demanded a new perception of God’s Sanctuary. Inside the cleft of a rock, he saw something truly magnificent, causing him to shine with the divine afterglow. Let Moses explain the meaning of God’s Sanctuary. Let his insights about God’s love and graciousness impress our hearts with a greater vision of His glory and character. Approach as Moses did and awaken to what really goes on in God’s Sanctuary. Once you experience the exceptional intimacy of God’s transforming Presence, your testimony will be like that of Moses; you too will declare with excitement and conviction,“I have been to the mountain, and I have seen the glory of the Lord.”
Craig Ashton Jr.